Funeral Parade of Roses
So goes the constant refrain of one the catchier vacuous ditties by Britain’s drunkard punk outfit The Exploited – titled, of course, “Sex and Violence.” If taken seriously – against The Exploited’s general intent, I’m sure – the song is something of a commentary on both the demand for and constant co-existence of sex and violence in society today. But the song also reminds us that The Exploited weren’t the brightest bunch of Brits in 1980s punk rock;1 by merely intoning “sex” and “violence” until the very words lose meaning, the track itself loses whatever meaningful intention it might have had. Like all ingrained social mores, it stays in your head and refuses to leave. As a joke, it’s a cheap one; as commentary, it’s a dumb reaction against perceived Puritanism.
In truth, sex and violence have been central to society for as god knows how long – just ask Oedipus. Or better yet, ask Japanese director Toshio Matsumoto about Oedipus. In 1967, at least fifteen years before The Exploited and halfway across the globe from England, the film director fashioned a funnier, sexier, more violent – and infinitely smarter – take on sex and violence, Funeral Parade of Roses. Criminally obscure, it’s never been released in the U.S. on home video, and came to the West on DVD thanks only to the efforts of the U.K.’s Masters of Cinema. Oedipus’ mythic moment of “Oops! I did it again” provides the movie’s plot; and the film’s opening text reads like something the old man might scream in tragedy, “I am a wound and a sword; a victim and an executioner.” But otherwise, the myth – and the plot, following a queen named Eddie and a torrid love triangle at her place of employment – plays second fiddle to a discordant rock n’ roll chorus of rioting students, sexy queens, gangland girls, clubbers, hippies, and dopers, who fight, fuck, shop, dance, and mourn their way through night clubs, beauty parlors, art galleries department stores, street fights, and graveyards.
It says something about my limited frame of reference that I have a hard time relating the film to anything specific to Japan, yet immediately think of two filmmakers of the West: Jean-Luc Godard and Stanley Kubrick. Despite my own limitations, I think contrasting both filmmakers and their relationship to Funeral Parade of Roses raises essential questions about cross-cultural influence and the differences between solidarity and stealing.
The influence of Funeral Parade on Kubrick is more than duly noted – it’s downright obvious that certain scenes and style were lifted completely for A Clockwork Orange. Unfortunately, Kubrick chose not to mimic the spirit nor the politics of Matsumoto’s film. While Funeral Parade is unequivocally subversive in its portrayal of Eddie and her environs, A Clockwork Orange’s Alex and his rapist band of teenagers are nothing but myopically reactionary, no matter how cool the style, and no matter how many lessons about the State wedged into that film’s final act.
Kubrick’s taking from Matusmoto is all funeral, no roses; in that sense, until clues as to Kubrick’s intentions are provided to me, it seems a crime. And yet, not all cross-cultural exchange is essentially theft. In The Imagination of the New Left, radical scholar George Katsiaficas argues that the struggles of the Sixties exhibited an “eros effect,” a global escalation of struggles – and now I realize, considering Funeral Parade, that the same effect can be found in radical techniques in cinema. While I’m no where knowledgeable enough to know of any Japanese precedents for Funeral Parade, I do know that Godard’s influence is all over the film, unmistakably.
In one instance, Eddie emerges from her apartment, fresh from primping in preparation for a night working her job at a club, only to stumble across a student protestor, fresh from a beating by the police, passed out in her stairwell. Nursing his wounds, Eddie can’t help but ask, “Why run riot?” What good is all this violence? The camera latches onto the student and the apartment disappears; we are suddenly in his world as he lectures the audience, not unlike the garbage-workers in Godard’s Weekend. “What matters is not admission of violence, but progressiveness of your violence. And whether the violence will stop or will last forever. In order to decide don’t judge crimes of morality, which people call pure morality by mistake. Place crimes in logic and dynamics and in history, where they belong.”
The film follows the same philosophy; it progresses in a haphazard manner. Scenes appear out of order, initially confusing us, only to reappear later with new meanings and context. Genders are revealed in visual tricks, initially confusing, that bring the viewer’s own assumptions to question. The film’s drag queen stars get to contribute; often a scene will immediately cut, asking for actor’s own opinions on their role and their lives. The film even brings its own tricks into question through the guise of one Guevara, a dopy filmmaker with a collective of hippie friends who specialize in over-the-top experimental films.
In The Imagination of the New Left, Katsiaficas also writes of the Japanese student movement’s “militant but controlled use of violence, much of it appearing as play.” The same might be written of Matsumoto’s use of both sex and violence, politically and cinematically. At a time in Japan’s history when revolutionary violence was on a lot of (young) people’s minds, Funeral Parade of Roses ensured that subversive sex couldn’t be ignored. There’s some gore and plenty of booty, but thanks to the ever-present attention given politics, it is a bloody mess intentionally made, equal parts camp and counterculture.2 As an intercut television announcer exclaims in the film’s final moments, “What a composite of cruelty and laughter!”
Sure, as The Exploited insisted, “sex and violence” ought to be considered together. But more specifically, it’s a question of pleasure and politics: one is never far from the other in Funeral Parade of Roses, as when Eddie makes sweet love to an American GI on furlough from the fighting in Vietnam. It’s all well beyond shit like The Exploited; and it’s what cinema is begging for today. For the Andersons and the Tarrantinos and the Coppolas (and possibly every major horror movie released in the past five years, like the Dawn of the Dead remake, for instance) are not unlike like Kubrick – they want the style and forget the struggle animating it. What results is clever references for film buffs and conventional melodrama/coming-of-age/guns-and-girls genre films for the rest of us. They are safe because they are so accessible; they aren’t subversive or challenging for the same reason. Funerals are not without flowers; roses are not without thorns. How about some cinema that makes bloodletting meaningful again?
1: I always preferred Crass and their ilk (e.g. The Mob, Zounds, Flux of Pink Indians).
2: Making me wonder what Ed Wood’s dreadful Orgy of the Dead could have been, were he a revolutionary. Like, how would the “Gold! More gold!” sequence be different?